Thank you, Sir David—it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister to his place. It seems that he has so much power in his pen already, and I will certainly be joining the queue to make bids for my constituency.
I welcome the debate, which has been led by Jack Brereton. It has been really crucial for the future of Stoke, and he presented his case very comprehensively. Ultimately this debate is about connectivity across our rail services, which is vital. We must remember that that is the purpose of our rail service: this is not about rail itself, but about ensuring that passengers and freight can move across our country smoothly and have the interconnectivity that my hon. Friend Gareth Snell raised in terms of intermodal connectivity, which is vital for ensuring that our systems work.
We have heard today about the need for station upgrades and reopenings, as well as improvements to routes. Those are absolutely vital for the economy in and around Stoke. It was a pleasure to talk to Jeremy Lefroy earlier in the week, and he reminded me of the history of Stoke’s rail services and of how local MPs and pottery owners did not want stations in Stoke, because they would mean that pottery workers’ wages would have to be put up. Today, we have the reverse situation, with MPs campaigning to ensure that we have good-quality rail services for that very reason—so that wages can increase for the local community. How things can change over time.
We need to ensure that the vital economy around the ceramics industry—we have heard how the industry is moving into wider manufacturing and digitalisation—is serviced by a good transport system. I felt the pain of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South as they talked about the one-carriage bone rattler on the Crewe to Derby line and about the time it takes to move along the tracks. In fact, it can take as long to travel between Stoke and Derby as it does between Stoke and London, and it can take even longer to travel to Nottingham. We have a real problem with connectivity between our east-west services, particularly in the midlands and the north, and it is vital that we address that. Labour has said that that is a priority for us, and that is true not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central touched on, of Crossrail for the north—often referred to as HS3—and making sure that we get a full upgrade, because that will really build the northern powerhouse.
I felt the frustration of my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly when he highlighted that although HS2—super high-speed rail—is being built, there is little point to it if we cannot connect into it and travel to it, bar at a snail’s pace. It is important that we think those issues through when enhancements are projected.
The debate has made it clear that the fragmentation across the railway service has created much of this pain. Stoke-on-Trent railway station hosts five different rail operators, and Fiona Bruce highlighted the lack of joined-up working across those services. That is why Labour has put on record that we should have one railway system—a new model of nationalisation, which does not go back to the past, but which moves forward to make sure we get that connectivity on track and train, but also across the whole network. People’s journeys do not start and stop where operators do, and we need to ensure that the whole system works.
There must also be transparency on fares—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central mentioned—so that people actually know what they are paying for when buying tickets. Let’s face it: we all feel we are being done when we buy our train tickets, so we need that transparency.
We also need to make sure that we have proper planning when operations, maintenance and enhancements are brought into rail services, to make sure those services are integrated and properly planned so we get the services we need. We need to look at not only track and train upgrades, but electrification and digitalisation, to move our railway system into the new era.
We should also ensure that every station is accessible. I remind hon. Members that many stations are still inaccessible 23 years after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That is a real disgrace. If they are accessible for disabled people, they are also accessible for parents with little ones in buggies, shoppers and everyone else who wishes to use the railway network. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth on her tenacious campaigning for access improvements at her station, Kidsgrove, which has clearly born fruit. MPs have campaigned for that for years, but she has delivered it for her constituents, and she must be congratulated on that.
We need to invest in the right places, and we need to reopen stations—especially given the opportunity that light rail could bring to places such as Stoke—to make sure we see a modal shift out of cars and away from congestion and polluting the environment, and on to well-connected rail services and good buses. We in this House have a duty to drive forward the debate against climate change, and we do that not just by talking about it—we have talked much—but by the decisions and actions that we take.
It is so important that Midlands Connect, the transport infrastructure body, really works on this agenda with local Members and the local authority. We want the best in the UK—not just the best for places such as Stoke, but the best in Europe. There are so many great examples out there of how connectivity and cleaning up rail and transport systems can be done, and we are ambitious about making that happen.
In concluding, I will just touch on HS2, because it has been mentioned in the debate. We need to ensure that there is good connectivity into HS2. During its construction, we need to make sure we maximise the opportunity for rail links to ensure that places such as Stoke and beyond end up with the connectivity they need. I heard the plea made very clearly about having links into Manchester airport, which is absolutely vital for the local economy, but it is also about making sure we have the connectivity map. My fear about HS2, which I have articulated a number of times, is that it has become about HS2 itself, as opposed to about enhanced rail infrastructure across the country. We need to move the debate forward and ensure accountability to make sure we get the rail service we need across our country. HS2 comes with opportunities—we have heard how Crewe could be revitalised as a vital railway town—and we must make sure that Stoke does not miss out.
We have had an excellent debate this afternoon, and many issues have been raised. I am sure the Minister’s pen is poised, given the multiple requests he has had this afternoon. As we move forward, I am confident that Labour has the right plan for the future of our railways. We do not need the Williams review; we have done the work with all the stakeholders on the railways. We are ready to run—we just need to have the Minister’s pen.